Whaling Attack in Cyber Security – Is it Similar to Phishing?

Written By Sambita Panigrahy  
Anuraag Singh
Approved By Anuraag Singh 
Published On January 15th, 2024
Reading Time 11 Minutes Reading

Tricking individual users through phishing emails has become common and slowly, the success rate of this strategy has lowered. And, that gave the cyber criminals, an opportunity to think bigger and level up their attack pattern through phishing. They, now, come up with advanced social engineering techniques to trick the senior officials of organizations. Typically, they target the company’s CEO, CFO, payroll department executives, etc. Snapchat and Seagate are the biggest examples of this spear-phishing attack. Since their target is to catch the bigger fish in the ocean, the name of such an attack is called a whaling attack in cyber security.

Now, the question comes, is a whaling attack similar to phishing? Well, it’s a type of phishing attack but not exactly the same. 

So, let’s understand this attack, it’s working, how it’s different from a phishing attack, and most importantly how you can be safe from this attack.

Whaling Phishing Attack Definition

An advanced kind of spear-phishing known as whaling involves threat actors either directly attacking high-level employees of an organization or disguising themselves as them to trick others. Targeting a CEO of a corporation or posing as the CEO to deceive other crucial members of an organization, such as CFOs, payroll departments, security teams, or spokespersons, is a frequent example.

Since modern organization leaders use a variety of phishing mitigation strategies and tools, cybercriminals may successfully carry out whaling attacks using sophisticated social engineering techniques. Unfortunately, because the attackers frequently conceal their whereabouts and digital footprints, it might be difficult to apprehend them.

Phishing Vs Whaling Attack in Cyber Security

Before diving deeper into whaling and how it operates, we should definitely address a frequently asked question: what is phishing in cybersecurity? 

Well, phishing occurs when threat actors pose as reliable parties in order to win the trust of a target and steal their money or private information. Despite what many people think, phishing assaults aren’t just conducted through emails. Smishing and vishing, for instance, are terms used to describe phishing assaults that use text messages and voice conversations respectively.

Because threat actors create phishing emails with a broad audience in mind, they frequently target a large number of Internet users and are simpler to identify. As a matter of fact, they send billions of phishing emails daily. 

Whaling attacks, however, are more specific in nature targeting C-level individuals to trick.

Whaling Attack in Cyber Security – How They Work?

Hackers employ a variety of tactics to carry out their whaling campaigns successfully since high-level targets are cautious of phishing assaults. To add a personal touch to their campaign, they might, for instance, capture the LinkedIn page of a senior executive. In fact, security flaws are the reason you might want to avoid using LinkedIn altogether. In order to appear credible and play on a target’s emotions, a whaling attacker may also do research on industry terminology and present a potential business opportunity. They can use the following whale phishing attack vectors once the intelligence-gathering phase is over:

  • Emails: As was already noted, harmful attachments, links, or websites are frequently used in emails that are specifically designed to manipulate their targets.
  • Phone: According to the UK National Cyber Security Centre, attackers may employ a “1-2 punch” tactic that involves an email followed by a phone call to reinforce phishing.
  • Pretexting: Scammers may use social media to befriend a victim by posing as a prospective business partner, love interest, professional peer, or authority figure like a tax official.
  • Baiting: By placing an infected USB drive at the target’s workplace, in their locker at the gym, or by shipping it to their house, the attacker can persuade them to utilize it.

What’s the Motive Behind the Whaling Attack?

Behind every cyber attack there lies only malicious intent. Have a look at some of the common purposes:

  • Money: Attackers may use the whaling attack to extort an organization after data exfiltration by tricking victims into transferring them money via wire transfer.
  • Control: Hackers may want to take control over the company’s network by using credentials they’ve stolen to move laterally or open backdoors.
  • Supply chain attacks: Using a technique called whale phishing, a cybercriminal may hypothetically target a government by hacking a vendor and conducting a man-in-the-middle attack. The hacker can target the organization by using this attack to access weak places in the supply chain of the corporation.
  • Corporate espionage: A hacker may want to obtain intellectual property or other commercial secrets to benefit competitors, sometimes in another country.
  • Malware: An online criminal organization may attempt to persuade victims of a whaling attack to install harmful software, such as ransomware, keyloggers, or rootkits. 

What are The Aftereffects of a Whaling Attack?

The consequences of a whaling attack have an adverse effect on the individual and on the organization as a whole. Such as:

  • Financial Loss: The primary objective of many whaling attackers is to cause financial harm to an organization. When a breach is successful, the company will incur financial losses while the hacker or hacking group will profit. High-value targets frequently just wire or transfer money to a fictitious account, but other whaling campaigns really acquire private data that is then sold for profit.
  • Data Loss: Data loss is a common side effect of whaling attacks, in addition to financial loss. In actuality, 76% of whale phishing assaults aim to obtain organizational credentials, which may contain customer and staff information. These kinds of data breaches may result in further revenue loss as well as the theft of intellectual property.
  • Reputational Damage: An organization’s reputation can be harmed by both financial loss and data loss. A company’s brand may suffer from poor press and customer distrust in addition to internal losses. Additionally, a corporation may lose brand deals, sponsorships, and other reputation-driven ties based on its product or industry.

Given the major negative side effects of this attack, it’s important to be aware of the signs of this attack. Let’s have a look at those.

How Can You Spot a Whaling Attack?

A whaling attack in cyber security is far more difficult to spot than a typical phishing attempt since attackers spend a lot more effort making emails and websites look authentic. The following are some common indications that an email may be a whaling attack:

  • An email address from the sender that does not exactly match the domain of the organization the message purports to be from. For instance, to trick the receiver, attackers frequently replace an “rn” for “m”, “vv” for “w”, etc in a domain name.
  • A request for the transfer of confidential data or for money to be wired to an account.
  • A hint or threat of negative outcomes if the requested action is not taken, along with a sense of urgency to persuade the recipient to act swiftly.

In addition to that, the hacker may ask the victim to:

  • Formally sanction a financial transaction.
  • Give the attacker access to the network.
  • Change the payroll data.
  • Send something pricey to another place.
  • Disclose a business secret.
  • Install malware on your computer.

Examples of Whaling Attack in Cyber Security

Many whale attacks target larger, more valuable corporations because of their sophisticated strategies and objectives. Some of the most severe whaling assaults have been launched against companies like Seagate, Scoular, and Snapchat.

Scoular Whaling Attack in 2015 

Hackers were able to impersonate The Scoular Company’s CEO and members of its accounting firm in 2015 by utilizing a fake merger and acquisition deal as a cover. It led to a loss of more than $17 million. In this assault, the hackers provided fake information in response to the target’s inquiries and claimed that discussing the email with anybody would be against international protocol.

Snapchat Whaling Attack from 2016

Early in 2016, a whaling attack victimized the digital business Snapchat. Hackers sent an email to another high-value target under the company’s name requesting payroll information for both present and former employees. This data was made available to the attackers by the target, resulting in a breach. The attack’s investigation was handed up to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Seagate Whaling Attack in 2016 

In March 2016, a whaling attack at Seagate resulted in a target being hit. Payroll information for all former and present employees was sent to the hackers under the guise that the target was speaking with the CEO of the business. As a result, there was a significant data breach that exposed 10,000 employee records. Social Security numbers, salary data, and other personally identifying information were contained in these documents. Following the breach, Seagate was subject to a class-action lawsuit brought by employees.

How to Prevent Whaling Attacks from Happening? 

Although you can’t stop whaling attacks from being directed at you or the executives of your organization, you may take precautions to lessen the chance that they will be effective. 

1. Invest in senior management cybersecurity awareness training: It is important to educate senior management, critical employees, and the finance departments about whaling assaults and how to recognize them. Employees need to be reminded not to accept unsolicited attachments, to confirm requests over the phone or in person, and to look up the sender’s domain name. Additionally, routinely test staff by staging mock whaling attacks.

2. Use OPSEC procedures: Operational security (OPSEC) is a method of spotting friendly acts that a potential intruder might combine with other data to reveal sensitive or important information. This may be as easy as an executive having a public Facebook profile with their private information, like their birthday, interests, friends, and address, or an intruder searching through the trash cans at their workplace. To learn more about OPSEC, see our guide. 

3. Put in place suitable email security measures: Invest in the proper SPF, DKIM, DMARC, and DNSSEC settings to stop email spoofing as many whaling emails rely on them. You might also find it useful to flag outside emails. 

4. Create a process for verification: Make sure that no employee, not even the CEO, is permitted to ask for money or information that isn’t typically delivered by email without first having their request confirmed through another channel, such as an internal message system. Employees should be trained on how to handle these requests and this procedure should be documented. 

5. Put data protection software in place: Invest in tools that can instantly identify data leaks and compromised credentials so you can stop information from ending up in the wrong hands.

6. Observe all independent contractors: If your vendors are managing sensitive data on your behalf, keep in mind that these attacks don’t necessarily have to originate from your domain; they simply need to have the same security measures in place as your company. Vendor risk management is crucial for this reason. Think about making an investment in a security ratings supplier that can assist you in quickly identifying the main dangers present in your vendor portfolio.

For more information on cybersecurity-related queries, contact our team now!


Q- What is a whaling attack?

A whaling attack is a sort of phishing scam that targets top executives or people in positions of responsibility inside an organization. It is also referred to as a CEO fraud or a spear-phishing attack targeting high-profile individuals. The intention is to deceive them into disclosing private information, sending money, or doing other things that can jeopardize the security of the company.

Q- What distinguishes typical phishing attacks from whaling assaults?

Whaling attacks are extremely targeted and concentrate on particular high-value targets, whereas typical phishing assaults target a broad audience with generic communications. Sophisticated tactics are frequently used in whaling assaults, including investigating the target’s personal and professional history to craft messages that are both personalized and convincing.

Q- What strategies are frequently employed in whaling attacks?

One of the most popular strategies used in whaling assaults is email spoofing, in which the attacker creates emails that seem to be from a reliable source, such as the CEO or a senior executive. Another strategy is social engineering, in which attackers use psychological manipulation to trick the target into disclosing private information or acting in a certain way.

Q- How can organizations defend themselves from whaling attacks?

Employers can train staff members to spot phishing attempts, use advanced threat detection technologies, and implement email authentication protocols like DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance) as preventative measures against whaling attacks. Furthermore, it is imperative to enforce multi-factor authentication, establish a strong cybersecurity policy, and update security measures regularly.

Q- Which warning signs could point to an attempt at whaling?

Unusual email addresses or domain names, requests that defy known company protocols, abrupt and urgent requests for sensitive information or money, and poor language and spelling in emails are all indicators of a whaling attack. Before acting, staff members ought to be instructed to confirm the legitimacy of such requests via other avenues of contact.